Jan. 22, 2008 -- In an irony befitting a Hollywood comedy, the paparazzi, who make a living off documenting celebrities' exploits on film, may soon have the cameras turned on them — by the cops.
Flash-weary celebs have long fought a frustrating battle against the intrusive tactics of the paparazzi. Not a week seems to go by without at least a few YouTube videos documenting the war, including scenes of Gwyneth Paltrow's husband, Chris Martin, grabbing a photographer and pushing him down on the ground while grabbing his camera, or Icelandic pixie, Bjork, ripping the shirt off the back of a reporter.
Last week, celebrities gained a crucial new ally — the police.
The LAPD and the Los Angeles Sheriff's Office have started to crack down on the hordes of photographers who block Hollywood traffic in their feverish efforts to get shots of Britney Spears' latest boyfriend, Jessica Alba's baby bump, or Paris Hilton's newest fender bender.
Last Wednesday night, four photographers, who got into a high-speed chase, while tailing Spears in the city's San Fernando Valley, were arrested on suspicion of reckless driving. Their cars followed Spears' white Mercedes Benz too closely, traveling at unsafe speeds, and making unsafe lane changes, said an LAPD spokesman.
And sheriff's deputies in West Hollywood cited a few shutterbugs, and detained a couple of them for questioning, after they stopped their cars in the middle of Melrose Avenue to shoot Alba outside a gym. "We shut down the street for 90 seconds, so she could leave, to prevent them from following her like a swarm of bees," sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore told ABCNEWS.com.
The sheriff's office insists that it's not a crackdown; rather, a response to an enormous increase in complaints.
In 2005, the West Hollywood station received about one complaint a week about paparazzi, according to Whitmore.
"Today, we're getting multiple complaints every day. It's a huge increase. Before, we might get a call from a business, or an individual celebrity who was stuck and surrounded. Now, we get complaints from homeowners, people out getting a cup of coffee, or walking their dog, who find their lives interrupted by hordes of photographers chasing a celebrity," said Whitmore.
And the police are giving the photographers a taste of their own medicine, aiming cameras at them. When the sheriff's office receives a complaint and comes into contact with paparazzi, officers will videotape the encounter and keep it on file, in order to resolve the complaint, or for training purposes, Whitmore added.
Whitmore insisted that the sheriff's office has always had a zero tolerance policy when it comes to vehicle codes and traffic and loitering laws, which are often used to bust photographers.
"We're not calling this a crackdown. We're enforcing the law," he said. "What's changed is that a component of society is growing in numbers, as well as aggressive tactics, and because of that, they're violating the law more, and we're detaining them more. Just the other day, we cited two of them for illegal registration, and one of them was cited for possession of marijuana."
During last week's courthouse spectacle, when Spears attempted to attend a custody hearing, but drove off, complaining about the horde of photographers, an LAPD officer videotaped the scene, according to LAPD spokesman Lt. Ruben De La Torre.
"It's kind of a risk management tool," explained De La Torre, who said that, while no one was arrested or detained, seven citations were written for photographers who received infractions for impeding traffic.
De La Torre also denied a Los Angeles Times report that the LAPD plans to use undercover officers in restaurants and nightclubs, to catch paparazzi who break the law.
Recently, some restaurant owners have called in the cavalry when they felt their customers' privacy was being invaded. The founder of the popular Urth Caffe called sheriff's deputies after TMZ.com set up a video camera across the street from the eatery's outdoor tables on Melrose Avenue.
"The criticism is ridiculous," says TMZ.com's executive producer, Harvey Levin. "Every day, from 12 to 1, we have a live stream, and we go to various places. It's on public property ... Urth Caffe are the only ones who've complained."
Although he depends on their images to fill his popular site, Levin agrees that some paparazzi have gone too far in their pursuit of their prey.
"It's true that a lot of paparazzi have crossed the line," he said. "They've broken traffic laws and chased people. And the sheriff's department is getting serious about it. They want to make sure that when people violate those laws, they're enforced. They're just responding to complaints."
One of the photographers arrested in last week's high-speed chase of Spears has worked for celebrity Web site x17.com.
In response to a request for a comment, Brandy Navarre, x17.com's vice president, e-mailed a statement:
"It's a sticky situation when you have law enforcement officers 'cracking down' on the media, because it's a slippery slope toward infringing on journalists' First Amendment rights."
Referring to incidents involving Spears, Navarre said, "It is a unique situation. When every media outlet imaginable is hungry for photos and videos of her, the photographers do their best to get content. For good or for bad, the entire world seems to be focused on Britney Spears right now, and while it's easy for the rest of the media, and for the public, to criticize photographers in Los Angeles, it's the media and the public creating the demand for our pictures."
De La Torre and Whitmore both emphasized that they are just enforcing laws already on the books.
"This is nothing over and beyond what we normally do," said De La Torre. "Certainly, when there's a celebrity involved, they present interesting challenges for the media providing the coverage, and for law enforcement looking out for the public interest."